MARLBOROUGH – During the spring of 2014, three teens at St. John Fisher Parish were performing community service work in the soup kitchens and food pantries of Marlborough, Middletown and Hartford when they noticed the lack of fresh produce. As a result, the teens, who were headed for confirmation in the fall, sprouted the idea of planting a garden at their church and donating the bounty to their local and extended community.
“We saw the problem and thought of the garden as a solution,” said Jennifer O’Neill, youth minister and confirmation teacher at St. John Fisher.
“After confirmation we didn’t want to stop helping. We wanted to keep helping,” explained Paisley Kostick, one of the three teens who took up the challenge along with her confirmation mates, Meghan Kelly and Victoria O’Neill, daughter of Jennifer O’Neill.
Today, the St. John Fisher Community Garden is in its third year serving those in need – at the Food Bank of Marlborough, Hartford Catholic Worker, St. Michael Food Pantry and the ImmaCare shelter, both in Hartford.
The garden is run by the three teens, who are supported by about 20 adult and teen volunteers from throughout the parish community, who help to plant, water, weed, harvest and deliver the produce.
“I’m really proud of this group,” said Father Thomas J. Sas, pastor of St. John Fisher Parish. “They had an idea and they did it. It’s not a one-shot deal – it’s continuing and it’s expanding.”
The garden had humble beginnings. In May 2013, Mrs. O’Neill was having lunch at b.good restaurant in Glastonbury when she saw a photo on the wall of rooftop gardens planted in kiddie pools at one of the chain’s Massachusetts restaurants.
So the girls got parishioners to donate three pink kiddie pools and one green turtle pool. The girls drilled holes in the pools and filled them with soil from Paul and Sandy’s Too in East Hampton, where they were given a gardening 101 class before planting their first crop of tomatoes, lettuce and basil.
“We never expected to have so much,” the young Ms. O’Neill said of the first year’s harvest.
During their second year, parishioner Peggy Filloramo, who runs the Colchester Giving Garden, a large town community garden in nearby Colchester, took an interest.
“I thought it was a great idea. I thought ‘Where did they get this idea with the kiddie pools?’ I thought it was so ingenious,” Mrs. Filloramo said. She suggested the teens consider expanding with raised beds.
Through her husband’s business connections, she got Westbrook Concrete Block Co. to donate cement blocks to build the raised beds, and persuaded Home Depot and Paul and Sandy’s to donate plants at reduced rates. The teens also held a plant sale in the spring to raise money for supplies, and parishioners made cash donations. Donna Bergman, a parishioner and a certified master gardener, also advised the teens.
Sean Neary, a teen parishioner who was looking for an Eagle Scout project, volunteered to do the hard work of digging holes in the rocky ground and constructing a fence around the beds to keep the animals at bay.
Jackie Allen-Doucet, an artist at Hartford Catholic Worker, drew an illustration on plywood that Deacon John McKaig, the teens, and other community members later painted and hung on the fence. Father Sas also came up with the idea of putting a basket in the church vestibule to collect excess produce from parishioners’ home gardens. “We got a lot of zucchini squash,” he said. “You can’t give it away!”
Today, the kiddie pools with lettuce and herbs remain and the four raised beds produce tomatoes, basil, peppers, green beans and carrots. Climbing cucumbers also have been planted along the fence.
Planting takes place around May 15 – the Feast Day of St. Isidore, the patron saint of farmers and gardeners. Harvesting takes place on Monday nights throughout the summer. “We bring the produce to the Food Bank of Marlborough on Tuesday and if it doesn’t all go, we bring it to locations in Hartford on Wednesday,” Mrs. O’Neill said.
Teens and adult parishioners sign up for a week of watering, taking turns throughout the growing season. “It’s important to have the whole community help the whole community,” the young Ms. O’Neill explained.
The benefits of the garden have grown far beyond the raising and sharing of produce.
“It’s a community garden squared – a community garden for other people but our community grew, too,” said Father Sas, who is encouraged to see the intergenerational bonding between the younger and older adults in his parish.
“We’re all connected through the garden, where before we weren’t connected through the ages. Now we have a common point,” Ms. Kostick added.
The teens also plan to mentor their juniors to keep the garden going.
“One of the biggest reasons we chose to do this garden was because it was something we could easily pass down to future generations that are coming up for confirmation classes,” Ms. Kostick explained. “It’s not just adults being leaders, but kids showing adults that we can be leaders and make a difference.”
Mrs. Filloramo of the Colchester Giving Garden said she is willing to provide free advice to any other church that would like to start a community garden to give to the poor. She can be contacted at 860-267-8067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.